Social Innovation

Two UpLink social innovators that are tackling global challenges

Residents fill their containers with drinking water from a municipal tanker in New Delhi, India, June 26, 2018.

UpLink connects entrepreneurs with experts and resources to solve problems such as access to clean water. Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi.

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Social Innovation

  • One year ago UpLink, an online network from the World Economic Forum, Deloitte and Salesforce, invited entrepreneurs to pitch solutions to a range of global problems.
  • The platform connects entrepreneurs with experts from business, government and society so they can access the resources they need to kickstart ideas.
  • We chart the success of two UpLink innovators using the latest technology to protect forest ecosystems, and harness solar energy to purify water.

On a beach in Kerala, India, Alexei Levene and William Janssen sat cross-legged in the sand, with a new type of solar panel in their hands — trying to work out how to solve one of the world's most pressing challenges using just sun and seawater.

Not far from where they sat, local villagers lacked access to clean drinking water. More than two billion people around the world were wrestling with the same problem, but Janssen and Levene had prototyped a new solution and were determined they could make an impact. However, as ecopreneurs the odds were stacked against them.

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“There is far too little support and investment at the early stages for the systems needed for a green industrial revolution. You have to really fight for every win until you’re fully productized – and getting to that point is the big challenge,” Levene says today, reflecting on the obstacles they have faced in the five years since then. Today their company Desolenator is 22 people strong and is about to launch two flagship projects for sustainable, solar-powered water purification.

In reality, as Levene points out, most entrepreneurial pursuits fail. Even after someone musters the rare combination of tenacity, resilience, and drive to pursue success in the face of adversity, it can feel impossible to land on an idea, let alone take action. They need help.

“It took us time, and we finally found our perfect first investor. But many companies are not so fortunate,” Levene added.

Co-founders of Desolenator, Alexei Levine and William Janssen.

When most entrepreneurs finally pursue an idea, they often gravitate to the places and people in their networks that can provide resources, which ultimately tie them to corporate or profit-driven goals. As a result, humanitarian entrepreneurs have historically struggled to fuel and fund their innovation even as the pandemic, climate change, and growing inequality have increased the need for their projects.

At the same time, companies like Salesforce that actively search for human-impact projects to fund as part of their philanthropic and sustainability efforts, have trouble finding entrepreneurs who align to their goals.

Simon Mulcahy, Chief Innovation Officer for Salesforce, explains, “There is so much capital out there with nowhere to go,” Mulcahy said. “At the same time, there are so many entrepreneurs with ideas, but they don’t know how to get those ideas to the right people.”

It was precisely this conundrum that inspired the World Economic Forum, Deloitte and Salesforce to collaborate on a solution. The result was UpLink: a digital platform that connects local innovators with the people and resources that can transform their ideas into reality and align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030.

Entrepreneurial alchemy in action

In its first year alone, UpLink has helped over 11,500 innovators connect, collaborate and focus their combined energy on helping address challenges faced by impoverished and disparaged communities around the world.

John Dutton, Head of UpLink at the Forum, shared a genuine sense of excitement for the platform’s progress. On a call with 10 of UpLink’s innovators, Dutton greeted each person by their first name with a warm sense of familiarity.

“The [World Economic] Forum has a long tradition of seeking insights and world-renowned innovations from across the globe,” Dutton said. “With UpLink, we’re looking to continue along this trajectory and go beyond the traditional ecosystems of leaders by democratizing the search for innovative solutions.”

UpLink, in this sense, is a platform and community where people from all backgrounds can engage the leaders and entrepreneurs who are identifying and solving problems locally – everywhere from Anchorage to Zimbabwe. Mulcahy acknowledges the platform’s potential with a similar sense of excitement.

“We want to enable, inspire, and empower younger generations who feel a whole level of ownership over the problem, and equip them with the tools to solve those problems – that’s powerful,” Mulcahy added.

UpLink connected Levine and his Desolenator project with partners like ABinBev, Booking.com, and the Dubai Energy & Water Authority, in addition to renowned investors and advisors from the desalination world. Through Uplink, Levine has been able to gain access to the experts and capital necessary to deploy his water purification solution to communities around the world – notably a rural Bangladeshi village of 4,000 people living with a vulnerable water supply in the South Pacific’s “Hurricane Alley”.

Diego Saez-Gil, faced similar challenges to Levine with his project Pachama, which leverages data, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to protect ecosystems, restore forests and improve carbon markets.

Diego Saez-Gil, founder of Pachama.

“UpLink has been especially helpful in raising awareness about our company. We were able to connect with corporate partners, investors and press, and that was super helpful,” Saez-Gil said, adding that he, “also connected with peer entrepreneurs, and that is key to sharing knowledge on how to lead teams, manage your mind and all the other challenges that entrepreneurs face.”

With UpLink, Saez-Gil and his team can start with an idea, and then recruit collaborators from around the world through the UpLink platform.

The connections and community are just the beginning. With partners like Salesforce, the UpLink innovators can also get access to tools tailored to their needs across industry-specific clouds, CRM software and even cutting-edge technology like machine learning and AI translation.

While UpLink benefits individual entrepreneurs most directly, Salesforce also sees it as a shining example of how business can act as a platform for change. That’s because UpLink can activate the full power of a company’s ecosystem to support initiatives. For the recent Trillion Trees Initiative, Salesforce tapped into its network of employees, partners and customers to address a specific challenge surfaced through UpLink: planting 100 million trees over the next decade.

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How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

High-level initiatives like these typically come from the top-down, with NGO and government leadership subsequently helping local business leaders tackle local challenges. Progress under this approach can be slow, but by equipping local businesses with connections, community, and technology, UpLink can accelerate change from the ground up while those high-level policy efforts take time to gain momentum.

“We need business and government, we need civil society, we need all citizens working together. And when we do, we can all be platforms for change. And that's why I'm so excited about UpLink,” Salesforce Chair and CEO Marc Benioff explained during a Davos session.

When describing the potential of the UpLink platform, Mulcahy perked up in his chair.“Imagine what we can accomplish by unleashing armies of passionate young people to solve issues and make a difference,“ he said, adding, “it’s not just the momentum but the quality of the engagements, too. It opens the door for the next chapter of UpLink’s growth.”

For Dutton and his team, UpLink’s massive first year is just a small glimpse into a big future. “I want to see everything grow by a factor of 10. At least,” Dutton said. The Forum, Salesforce, Deloitte, and thousands of UpLink users understand the power and potential of the platform: world-changing innovations that can come from anywhere and anyone. Whether it’s a garden in Southern India, or a forest in Argentina, UpLink can connect local entrepreneurs with a global network of collaborators ready to lend a hand. And when the power of technology helps people work together, some might find that the weight of the world is a little easier to carry.

This article originally appeared on Salesforce newsroom.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationEntrepreneurshipSustainable Development
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